updated 10/7/2005 10:03:15 AM ET 2005-10-07T14:03:15

A coalition of 20 environmental groups sued the Bush administration Thursday to block road construction, logging and industrial development on more than 90,000 square miles of the nation’s last untouched forests.

In the lawsuit, the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Greenpeace and other groups challenge the U.S. Forest Service decision earlier this year to repeal President Clinton’s 2001 “roadless rule” that protected 58.5 million acres of undeveloped national forest.

“These are the last wild areas of North America, and there is overwhelming public support for their protection from development,” said Kristen Boyles, a staff attorney for Oakland-based Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The federal lawsuit comes about a month after the attorneys general for California, New Mexico and Oregon brought a similar legal challenge. Both lawsuits allege the Bush administration violated federal law by not studying the environmental impacts of repealing the Clinton rule.

The U.S. Forest Service would not comment because the litigation is pending, said spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch.

Just before he left office in January 2001, Clinton issued a rule banning development and road building on almost one-third of the nation’s 192 million acres of national forest land. The move was praised by environmentalists, but criticized by timber interests.

The Bush administration repealed the rule in May and issued a new policy that required states to work with Forest Service officials to devise management plans for individual forests.

Administration officials and timber industry representatives point out that the Clinton rule was struck down in 2003 by a federal judge who said the executive branch had overstepped its authority when it issued the regulation.

Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, decried the latest lawsuit. He said the environmental groups should participate in the process of determining how individual forests are managed instead of fighting the new regulations. He also said that allowing road construction in undeveloped forests would help prevent catastrophic forest fires.

“If we let Mother Nature run rampant, we’re going to get these 100,000-acre fires, and it will take centuries for those areas to recover,” West said.

Environmentalists say that roadless forests must be protected because they are some of the most pristine places in the United States, with clean drinking water, unspoiled habitat for fish and wildlife and unrivaled hiking and fishing.

“Because they haven’t been logged, mined or roaded, they’re still in their natural condition,” said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

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